REVIEW: ‘But for the Lovers’ is an all-consuming masterpiece

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Long unavailable in the Philippines since its publication in the US in 1970, Wilfrido D. Nolledo's seminal novel “But for the Lovers” gets a reissue from the new press Exploding Galaxies, which hopefully gives it a wide readership that has undeservedly eluded it for decades. Photo by JL JAVIER/Courtesy of EXPLODING GALAXIES

Reading Wilfredo Nolledo’s “But for the Lovers” is a bit like walking through a primordial forest. Everything is familiar, but not quite. The trees are of an alien, phosphorescent shade of green. The flowers bloom in arcane geometrical patterns and exude heady and intoxicating scents. Luminescent creatures flit through branches or run stealthily across the underbush. And one faces the likelihood of being eaten. Because to read Nolledo’s prose is to be consumed by it, by its density, by its lushness, by the rules and caprices of its fictional universe. And one cannot help but enjoy the consumption.

A league of his own

The National Artist Nick Joaquin called Nolledo’s work a “baroque labyrinth,” and that description also captures the strange magic of his work. Set in a labyrinthine Manila during the Japanese occupation and American liberation, the novel follows an equally dense cast of characters trying to survive in wartime: a chameleonic thief and trickster, a mystical and magnetic young woman, a one-armed prophet, an aristocratic vaudeville actor fallen on hard times, a lecherous landlady, psychopathic Japanese soldiers, an aged opera singer, a philandering locksmith, a shrewd bar-owner, all of them navigating a Manila filled with patriots and traitors, hustlers and heroes, bombarded by airstrikes, haunted by former glories, torn across conflicting motivations and dark desires. The novel is equally marvelous and macabre, entrancing and apocalyptic. From the first, unforgettable line, the reader is thrust into Nolledo’s singular vision: “He was beginning to eat flowers and the crescent moon was in his eyes when he awoke again.”

“But for the Lovers” reminds the reader that language is foundation of any literary work, and a maverick like Nolledo is able to shape language to create whatever wondrous forms he wants. In her foreword to the new and first Philippine edition of the novel, Gina Apostol said that reading the novel was “sheer fun.” And the novel is a delight, primarily because of how gleefully and cheekily Nolledo plays with language. He describes a rundown boarding house as “pocked with graffiti, impervious to all imaginable horrors, the property had become the progenitor of a new class culture.” Describing the wiles of a dancer, Nolledo writes, “Maddalena rocked, Maddalena rolled her belly to a stupefied combo of flute, saxophone and castanets. Veiled but vibrant, she cruised among tippers and ticklers behind potted palms and terracotta antiques, crunching peanut shells on a floor linoleumed with squashed flies, essence of mosquitos and male droppings. Whiff of whiskey and turpentine tanged the dusty air.” “But for the Lovers” possesses an unparalleled musicality. Reading the novel aloud gives the reader added pleasure, because it allows them to further cherish the rhythms and tones of Nolledo’s prose. He is a master at revealing and concealing. He describes every dark corner, ruined building, run-down apartment, fraught gesture, while enriching the mysteries at the heart of each character, their tangled fates and desires. The novel is relentless. Every page is filled with such vibrancy that by the time the reader reaches its frenzied climax, one might feel a little drunk.

Author Wilfrido D. Nolledo was a staff member of the Philippines Free Press from 1963 to 1966. He received numerous Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for his works such as the often-anthologized story "Rice Wine." He served as the editor of The Iowa Review after participating in the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Photo courtesy of EXPLODING GALAXIES

An old novel for a new world

Yet, for all its literary pyrotechnics, “But for the Lovers” never glamorizes or romanticizes war. The novel is sheer fun to read because of Nolledo’s grasp of language. But the substance of the novel is nightmarish. It does not shy away from showing the horrors of war. In one of the novel’s earliest sections, the soldiers and prisoners gang-rape the corpse of a woman. There are long scenes of torture. There are dank and bloodied jail cells. An interrogation ends with a stoning and an eye gouging. Civilians are brutalized, soldiers are traumatized, an entire city is razed. The climactic battle in Manila reads, “The children swooped around the ambushers, who stabbed them too; and two, three, four, fell, wounded, dying, dead. Someone bleeding tumbled out of uncrated cordage, sped to a bridge, then to other bridges, and before the two bearded men could get away, the uniformed patriots showed up again and mowed them down: systematically, without fuss.” Even without delving into the violence of war, Nolledo is stark in his depictions of poverty and hardened life under occupation. Making their way to the bay to watch the sunset, Amoran the thief and the mysterious girl (who may or may not be named Alma) observe their decrepit surroundings: “What matters if they were replicas of tattered beggars on the embankments? Manila swarmed with such stillborn creatures. For such a physical time, flesh seemed transparent, flesh was transparent only from watery green iris. Trucks were driven by insomnia, pushcarts trundled by inertia, the black market skulked on spidery limbs....” Much like Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s landmark short story “A Wilderness of Sweets,” “But for the Lovers” is unflinching in its portrayal of the hungers, the miseries, the humiliations, the traumas, and the human costs of war. At a time of increasing militarization and global warmongering, the novel presents a harrowing and chilling argument for peace.

“But for the Lovers” remained tragically unpublished in the Philippines until the efforts of Exploding Galaxies, a new local press dedicated towards publishing out-of-print Philippine fiction. An edition of the novel was published by Dalkey Archive, a US-based publisher. But now, Filipino readers can easily get a copy of Nolledo’s rapturous novel, issued in a sleek orange design, with a foreword from the eminent novelist Gina Apostol and an introduction from the erudite journalist Audrey Carpio. Hopefully, the novel gains the wide readership that has undeservedly eluded it for decades.


Buy a copy of “But for the Lovers” through the Exploding Galaxies website or in select bookstores soon.